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A gift that keeps on giving

Resource type: News

The Irish Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

Even before she married Lewis Glucksman, Loretta Brennan’s heart was in Ireland, but as chair of the American Ireland Fund she has generated ‘tens of millions’ for Irish causes, writes LARA MARLOWE, in New York.

LORETTA BRENNAN GLUCKSMAN was already in her 40s when she met the two great loves of her life. The first, the Wall Street magnate Lewis Glucksman, who was then head of Lehman Brothers investment bank, introduced her to the second: Ireland.

Lorretta Brennan was Irish-American, the granddaughter of a Brennan from Donegal, a Campbell from Ulster, a McHugh from Leitrim and a Murray from Carlow. She grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with 40 Irish cousins. Grandfather Brennan lived next door, and taught her to pray in Irish.

Brennan’s father, Liam, was a postman. “There was never any question of going to Ireland. We just didn’t have the money. It would have been like going to Mars,” she says.

It was Lewis Glucksman who first brought her to the country of her ancestors, in 1984. “So many people assume I dragged this poor, unsuspecting Hungarian-Jewish-American to Ireland,” she says with a laugh over a glass of Pouilly-Fuissé at the 21 Club in Manhattan.

Glucksman had served on a US Navy submarine during the second World War, and spent his leave time in Ireland. “He knew Ireland like the back of his hand,” Brennan Glucksman explains. “He loved the writers, visited all their homes. He called these journeys his pilgrimages.” Twenty-six years after she first set foot on Irish soil, Loretta Brennan Glucksman is a grande dame of Irish-American relations, philanthropist extraordinaire and friend to a generation of Irish politicians, writers, musicians and artists.

Next Thursday Bill Clinton, the former US president, will give a keynote speech in Dublin when she receives a Business & Finance magazine award for her contribution to Irish life. She says the award is good for the American Ireland Fund, which she has chaired since 1995.

Brennan Glucksman says she hasn’t kept track of how much she and her husband donated to Irish causes, “but it’s certainly tens of millions”. She and Lewis, who died of cancer in July 2006, started their 20-year philanthropic binge for Ireland in 1989, when they teamed up with Chuck Feeney, the co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers, to build a library and concert hall for the University of Limerick.

In 1993, Glucksman endowed New York University with an Irish cultural centre, Glucksman Ireland House, in a lovely 19th- century mews house at the bottom of Fifth Avenue. In 2004, the Glucksmans gave Cork the €10 million Lewis Glucksman Gallery of contemporary Irish art. Other Irish beneficiaries of their largesse include Trinity College Dublin, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Abbey and Gate theatres, Wexford Festival Opera and the Coastal and Marine Resources Centre at University College Cork.

Brennan Glucksman is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and has been on the boards of the IDA, Cork Airport Authority, National Gallery, National Concert Hall, National Library, Trinity College, University College Cork, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Abbey Theatre and Fulbright Commission. “I don’t take things on just to be adding another notch to my belt,” she says. “They are all organisations I care about. One of my real fears is . . . I would hate to be perceived as a dilettante.”

She believes living well is the best revenge. Rather than waste money she orders tap water in restaurants and, rather than being driven in a luxury car, takes taxis in Manhattan. She says she still feels “a sense of wonderment” at being fabulously wealthy. “Believe me, I’m not a masochist. I have not taken a vow of poverty. I am not Mother Teresa. The most generous people start by being generous to themselves and their families.”

When Loretta Brennan fell in love with Lew Glucksman in the 1980s, she wore a miraculous medal from the convent where her aunt was a nun. “A few weeks later Lew gave me a spectacular emerald pendant and said, ‘I hope this will be your new miraculous medal,’ and it was. I hope that doesn’t sound too blasphemous!” The large rectangular emerald, set in a frame of diamonds, with matching ear-rings, is her signature ornament; at an American Ireland Fund dinner she hosted, the head of a prestigious jewellery house was heard to joke that “Loretta’s emeralds would bring in more millions than this gala”.

Brennan Glucksman knows what it’s like to struggle to pay bills. She married her childhood sweetheart in Allentown when both were 20, and had three children in three years. He worked full time while at graduate school, and she had two jobs, took in typing at home and cared for the children. The couple divorced without acrimony eight years later.

After her sons, John and Christopher, were born, her gynaecologist warned she wouldn’t survive a third pregnancy. He recommended birth-control pills but suggested she discuss it with her priest. “All hell broke loose in the confessional,” Brennan Glucksman recalls. “The priest told me: ‘You will die in God’s grace, or you will be damned to hell.’ That was the end of the Catholic Church for me.” She has “a faith”, she says, but not the religious faith of her mother.

Brennan Glucksman did not know that she was already pregnant at the time of her argument with the priest. She developed placenta previa, a potentially dangerous complication of pregnancy in which the placenta attaches to the womb. Her daughter, Kate, was born prematurely, and Brennan Glucksman’s heart stopped during an emergency Caesarean. “I remember looking down and seeing myself and Kate on the delivery table and saying, ‘I don’t want to leave here.’

“Kate is the child of my soul,” she says. “She has been my friend, which is the biggest gift a mother can have.” Kate married Giandomenico Picco, an Italian diplomat who negotiated the release of western hostages in Lebanon before becoming a consultant; she was a Wall Street trader before stopping to look after their son Liam.

Brennan Glucksman’s second marriage, to an urban planner in New Jersey, was “a mistake . . . a bad decision” driven by the need for security, and lasted only three years. She left teaching to work as a presenter and producer on public television, which gave her an abiding interest in politics and journalism, and later started a PR company.

On September 28th, 1983, a friend organised a dinner for four with Lewis Glucksman, who had been divorced for two years, at an expensive restaurant in Manhattan. Unknown to Loretta, who took little interest in business stories, Lew was involved in a struggle to maintain the independence of Lehman Brothers. He lost the battle the following year, when Lehman was sold to American Express, and reportedly received a $15.6 million golden handshake; he went on to found his own Wall Street firm, Glucksman and Co.

Their first meeting was inauspicious. “I thought my watch had stopped, the evening was so boring, and he felt the same way,” she says with a laugh now. “He called me the next day and said, ‘That was pretty awful. Would you try again?’ ” He invited her to the Metropolitan Museum, where Lehman Brothers was sponsoring an exhibition.

“The bowing and scraping that went on . . . I liked the way he handled it,” she recalls. That evening Lew bought a Monet poster for Loretta. “I think it cost a buck and a half. It still hangs in my bedroom,” she says. “It was the first gift, on our first date. We were together from then on.” Lew Glucksman “had a reputation on Wall Street as a real cut-throat trader, which he was”, she says. “But he was so much an intellectual, though he didn’t show it.” She loved his sense of humour, his workshop in the garage of his house in the Hamptons, the “sublime” dinners he cooked for her.

When a beautiful woman marries a very rich man, people often wonder if she’s after his money, I venture cautiously, but Brennan Glucksman takes it in her stride. “That’s a very good question. By then I had made my own way. He looked at me differently because I didn’t want anything. I liked him. I was attracted to him. But I didn’t intend to marry him, because I thought I’d failed twice.” She relented a year and a half later, when Glucksman secretly made wedding arrangements, then asked her to decide at short notice. While he was at a board meeting on the campus of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, “I walked around campus, thinking, I know I love this man – why not?” They were married by a Unitarian minister, in a chapel designed by Christopher Wren, as soon as the board meeting was over.

In the early 1990s Tony O’Reilly asked Loretta Brennan Glucksman to be president of the American Ireland Fund, then to replace him as chairman. “Lew was so wise,” she says. “He knew I needed something to do. I had closed the business because it was specious when I was flying around with him all the time. He knew the Ireland Fund was something I could get my teeth into, intellectually and emotionally.”

She doesn’t “do figures” she says. “When Lew was alive I just didn’t deal with the numbers. We decided this was a project we wanted to do. I would get involved, and Lew would make sure the money was there. Thanks to his absolute beneficence, I’m in a position to continue.” At the fund she entrusts “the figures” to its president and CEO, Kieran McLoughlin, and chief operating officer, Tom O’Leary.

Lewis Glucksman was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2000 and given six months to live. He moved to their home overlooking the sea in Cork, and lived six more years. “That was his willpower,” says Brennan Glucksman. “I give Ireland credit for extending his life. He was so happy there – a Hungarian Jew who was somehow a child of Ireland.”

It took three years for her to re-establish some kind of emotional equilibrium after his death. Her work for the fund “was a saviour to me, a lifeline,” she says. “When one is grieving it’s so easy to pull into isolation. I have made my dearest friends through the Ireland Fund, and they wouldn’t let me wallow.” Irish-Americans who donate to Irish causes are sometimes disillusioned, says Brennan Glucksman.

“Giving obeisance is not the Irish way,” she explains. “The more time donors spend in Ireland, the more they get over the feeling that something is due [to] them. When they take satisfaction in whatever project they supported, when it transcends personal feelings, that’s when I’ve got them hooked as donors.”

The question of gratitude “doesn’t come up on my radar”, says Brennan Glucksman. “It’s very, very difficult to give without being perceived as patronising. I dance on the head of the pin. I would rather not give a gift than be perceived as arrogant or paternalistic. I try to make people understand that I am genuinely committed to a cause.”

The American Ireland Fund has raised $250 million for Irish causes in 30 years. The lion’s share has gone to education, followed by community development, arts and culture, and peace and reconciliation. “There is no reward that could ever come close to someone stopping me on the street and saying, ‘Thank you. My son just graduated,’ ” says Brennan Glucksman. “That’s the best payback. Nothing can top that.”


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